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Best New Romantic Bands: 10 Dandies Who Gave 80s Pop A Makeover
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List & Guides

Best New Romantic Bands: 10 Dandies Who Gave 80s Pop A Makeover

Dressing outrageously and invading the charts, the best New Romantic bands dragged British pop out of the doldrums and into a golden era.

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Thanks to nightclubs such as the Blitz in London and the Rum Runner in Birmingham, the UK music scene of the early 80s was bursting with originality. Giving rise to an eccentric army of Regency-inspired darlings and effeminate provocateurs – often blurring gender lines and championing unusual sounds – the New Romantic scene ushered in a whole new era for British pop. Musically, its figureheads ran the gamut from electro-pop experimentalists to ex-punks embracing bohemian personas, flaunting their eccentric fashion sensibilities and wearing copious amounts of makeup. With a sense of fun and gleeful escapism, then, here is our list of the best New Romantic bands of all time…

Listen to our 80s playlist here, and check out our ten best New Romantic bands, below.

10: Visage

Running out of records to play at the Blitz nightclub in Covent Garden – the epicentre of London’s New Romantic scene – DJ Rusty Egan and the club’s notoriously picky doorman and co-founder, Steve Strange, formed Visage with former punk musician Midge Ure to start making their own songs. An icy musical presence among the best New Romantic bands, Visage paired stoical synths inspired by David Bowie’s 1977 album Low with gloomy, dispassionate vocals.

Introducing audiences to New Romantic styles, Visage singer Steve Strange brought his eccentric fashion-icon status into the pop mainstream with his pastel-white makeup and contoured cheekbones, scoring a UK No.8 hit in 1980 with the electro-futurist single Fade To Grey. Arguably the first New Romantic record of note, Rusty Egan’s then girlfriend, Brigitte Aren, recited French lyrics on the song, though it was Strange’s friend Princess Julia who mimed along in the music video.

Must hear: Fade To Grey

9: Japan

Though they never quite felt comfortable with the New Romantic label, Japan’s combination of burbling synthscapes and sartorial elegance nevertheless played a pivotal role in the emerging scene. Founded in 1974, the band moved from glam rock to electronic sounds, with singer David Sylvan’s silky baritone starkly underpinning their free-flowing blend of art-pop.

More than just a bunch of pretty boys in makeup, Japan’s 1979 breakthrough album, Quiet Life, was overseen by Roxy Music producer John Punter and is considered to be one of the first albums of the New Romantic era. A reissue of its title track in 1981 reached No.19 in the UK, consolidating Japan’s position as one of the most seminal New Romantic artists. “Duran Duran dressed like Japan,” bemoaned the group’s manager Simon Napier-Bell. Clearly, their influence on the New Romantic scene simply cannot be ignored.

Must hear: Quiet Life

8: ABC

Sheffield-based pop group ABC rose to fame towards the end of the New Romantic era with their jaunty synths and an aesthetic inspired by the bombast of swing jazz. “We wanted to hark back to Cole Porter and his ilk,” singer Martin Fry said, “but in a very modern way.” ABC’s Trevor Horn-produced debut album, The Lexicon Of Love, was hugely successful, giving rise to notable UK Top 10 hits such as The Look Of Love and future darts walk-on music staple Poison Arrow.

Often taking to the stage in a gold lamé suit, Martin Fry’s coiffured hair and yelping vocals – showcased on music videos evoking a Great Gatsby-esque world of 30s glamour – turned him into one of the most notable frontmen of the early 80s. As one of the best New Romantic bands to find chart success in the US, ABC led the charge on the frontline of the Second British Invasion.

Must hear: Poison Arrow

7: Soft Cell

As the New Romantics began to make a dent on the UK charts, experimental pop duo Soft Cell certainly reaped the commercial benefits, despite going on to reject the association. “We were linked to the whole New Romantics thing,” keyboardist and electronic percussionist Dave Ball said in a 1984 interview, “but we were never a part of that.” The band did, however, exemplify the spirit of the movement, thanks to Marc Almond’s moody vocals and the duo’s love of art-pop minimalism.

Perhaps most famous for releasing a cover version of Gloria Jones’ Northern soul stomper Tainted Love in 1981, Soft Cell morphed the track into a minimalist synth-pop masterpiece and scored themselves a No.1 in the UK. From their debut album, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, onwards, the duo would go on to become one of the most influential synth-pop acts of the decade.

Must hear: Tainted Love

6: Adam And The Ants

Posing as a highwayman with Native American warpaint daubed across his face, Adam Ant’s image chimed with the Regency-era chic of the New Romantic tribe. Musically, however, Adam And The Ants were far more punk-influenced, but their style and popularity made them stand out from the pack and saw them become one of the biggest pop bands of the early 80s.

Doubling down on his quirky fashion sense, Adam Ant sported Scarlet Pimpernel-esque fancy-dress in 1981’s Prince Charming video, proving that he was a fellow-traveller among the New Romantic dandies. If in doubt, Antmusic, Adam And The Ant’s UK No.2 single from 1980, could almost have been describing the philosophy behind the New Romantic trend: “So unplug the jukebox and do us all a favour/That music’s lost its taste so try another flavour.”

Must hear: Antmusic

5: Culture Club

As a former cloakroom attendant at the Blitz, it took some time for Boy George to kickstart his musical career. Founding Culture Club in 1981, the band quickly rose to the forefront of the Second British Invasion, perfecting a sophisti-pop new-wave sound that earned them era-defining transatlantic hits with 1981’s Do You Really Want To Hurt Me? and 1983’s Karma Chameleon.

Becoming an instant 80s icon, Boy George’s androgynous appearance and his soulful, honey-like voice was incendiary, leading him to grace the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in the US and become a much-welcome poster boy among the era’s LGBTQ+ musicians. Moving from the cloakroom to the heart of the pop world, Boy George’s flamboyant stage image and his close connection to the gaggle of London scenesters known as Blitz Kids proved that the stylistic legacy of the best New Romantic bands could produce a genuine global superstar.

Must hear: Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?

4: Ultravox

Following his musical collaborations with Visage, Midge Ure regrouped with Ultravox and assumed the role of lead singer as the experimental post-punk group refashioned themselves as an electro-pop outfit. Since their debut album was produced by Kraftwerk collaborator Conrad “Conny” Plank, it signalled Ure’s intention to invoke a European-inspired air of innovation, leading them to release Ultravox’s masterful 1981 single Vienna.

Arguably the New Romantics’ answer to Bohemian Rhapsody, Vienna was sweeping and epic, with classicist flourishes mixing with cutting-edge synths and newfangled electronics. Peaking at No.2 in the UK, the operatic ballad was kept off the top spot by Joe Dolce’s novelty hit, Shaddap You Face, but Vienna still stands the test of time, and its longstanding reputation as one of the finest New Romantic-era songs remains undiminished. As an innovative synth-pop group and one of the best New Romantic bands, Ultravox were a hard act to follow.

Must hear: Vienna

3: The Human League

Hailing from Sheffield, The Human League famously fused the pulsing beats of Kraftwerk with synth-pop melodies that even ABBA would envy, endearing them to many New Romantic fans. Vocalist and songwriter Phil Oakey’s penchant for sporting rouge lipstick and a lopsided dark haircut meant he quickly became a Smash Hits favourite, leading an iconic line-up featuring female backing singers Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley.

Produced by Martin Rushent, The Human League’s third album, Dare, was a momentous breakthrough in the evolution of electro-pop, spawning Top 10 UK hits such as Love Action (I Believe In Love), Open Your Heart and Don’t You Want Me. Topping the charts in the US and standing at the vanguard of the Second British Invasion, The Human League’s daring and adventurous strain of electronic music makes them hands-down one of the best New Romantic bands.

Must hear: Love Action (I Believe In Love)

2: Spandau Ballet

Beloved by the Blitz Kids, Spandau Ballet regularly played at the London nightclub on Tuesday nights before signing a record deal thanks to their inspiring use of synthesisers and funk-pop rhythms. Peacocking their way into the pop charts, the band’s Teddy Boy-inspired look ranged from tartan outfits to zoot suits, and was more than complemented by singer Tony Hadley’s gigantic voice and bassist Martin Kemp’s elastic basslines.

As early-80s pin-ups, the group inspired mass hysteria among teenage girls, in tandem with their chief rivals, Duran Duran. Thankfully, songwriter Gary Kemp’s knack for churning out synth-rock gold – To Cut A Long Story Short, Chant No.1 (I Don’t Need This Pressure On) – helped Spandau Ballet stand toe-to-toe with their New Romantic contemporaries.

Must hear: To Cut A Long Story Short

1: Duran Duran

Harnessing radio-friendly pop tunes with high-end music videos that put them on heavy rotation on MTV, Duran Duran first surfaced playing experimental synth-pop at Birmingham’s New Romantic nightclub, Rum Runner. The frill-wearing talents of keyboardist Nick Rhodes, singer Simon Le Bon, guitarist Andy Taylor, bassist John Taylor and drummer Roger Taylor saw them combine David Bowie-esque art-pop with Chic’s funky disco sound.

Occasionally verging on post-punk, the sheer musicality of Duran Duran saw them become one of the best-selling groups of the 80s, dominating the airwaves thanks to international hits such as Planet Earth, Girls On Film, Hungry Like The Wolf, Rio and Save A Prayer. Forever adored, Duran Duran easily earn their place at the top of our list of the best New Romantic bands.

Must hear: Planet Earth

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